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There is palpable excitement in Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem’s voice when he talks about discovering the internet as a young artist based in Riyadh. “In the late 1990s, the internet was so liberating,” he says. “I’d stand in front of a computer monitor for hours just waiting to see museums, exhibitions, art fairs. Downloading images for my desktop was a very powerful gesture.”
This digital window on the outside world fed into Gharem’s wider vision – to challenge existing modes of art practice in Saudi Arabia. The artist has since become the country’s most famous art export, making controversial, intelligent works that draw upon, and occasionally subvert, aspects of his Saudi heritage.
These include “Flora and Fauna”, a performance piece made in 2007 in the centre of Abha, a southern Saudi city. Gharem, 40, wrapped himself in plastic sheeting, also encasing one of the trees running down the main street. A new presentation of the piece, dated 2013, is on show in the first major solo exhibition dedicated to Gharem at Edge of Arabia in London. More than 20 works are for sale, made between 2010 and the present, with a price range of £3,000-£100,000.
“‘Flora and Fauna’ was a neat exploration of how man must exist in equilibrium with his environment,” says Gharem on his website. Locals may have been foxed by this strange fusion of foliage and human, but Gharem says – deadpan – that bystanders just became “part of the work”. Drawing in the community was an integral aspect, but a maverick element also makes him appealing.
This anarchic streak, which has always bubbled under the surface, came to a head during his studies at the Al-Meftaha Arts Village in Abha in 2003. Tired of painting “landscapes and butterflies”, Gharem says that a group show at the commercial gallery Jeddah Atelier in 2004 proved a turning point. “Along with other artists from Al-Meftaha, I displayed new media works that were revolutionary. Around 800 visitors turned up,” he says, apparently relishing the new-found fame.
He came to the west’s attention during the Venice Biennale of 2009, where the non-profit Edge of Arabia, of which he is co-founder, showed the video Siraat (The Path). (A related silkscreen portraying a collapsed bridge daubed in Gharem’s graffiti-esque scrawls is on view in London.) Then in 2007 he made an important, socially engaged piece after visiting the south-western Saudi town of Jizan, near the Yemen border. In this crumbling shantytown he spotted the term “manzoa” (meaning “to be demolished”) sprayed across the shacks owned by local fishermen. Gharem painted the same word on his shirt, walking among the impoverished inhabitants “like a ghost”.
But what makes Gharem’s status as a leading exponent of Middle Eastern conceptualism even more startling is the fact that he has another, more conventional, career – as a lieutenant- colonel in the Saudi army. Surely this dual existence has, at times, rubbed his peers up the wrong way?
“My military experience feeds into my artistic vision 100 per cent. I’ve been in the army for more than 21 years and, yes, in the beginning it was complicated. But after 18 years as an artist, I have the confidence of the senior figures in the army.”
It is clear that his Saudi extraction and life experiences are the DNA of his art, though he – rather naively – emphasises: “I’m not on one side. I’m a witness.” The London show is full of loaded statements, such as a series of three enormous hand-carved stamps made by Moroccan craftsmen. There are also stamp prints on paper such as “The Stamp (Amen)” and “The Stamp (Moujaz)”. Stamps, a mundane symbol of Saudi bureaucracy, signal the “right path”, observes Gharem.
“In Arabic ‘Moujaz’ means ‘in accordance with sharia law’,” he says. “Many Saudi banks use this slogan to bring in new customers. But recently some of these banks were exposed for breaking the rules, as [outdated] sharia laws haven’t evolved.” Another striking work made from rubber stamps, “Camouflage” (2013), depicts an electric blue tank that appears braided together from traditional Islamic art forms.
This drive for experimental, edgier art has inevitably unsettled factions in his conservative home country. In 2008, Saudi government officials visited an exhibition organised by Edge of Arabia at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The visiting dignitaries wanted the work “Pedestrian Crossing”, which depicted the 9/11 attacks, withdrawn.
Gharem objected, but agreed to remove the image of an aeroplane hitting the second tower and added a third stripe to the canvas, so that all association with the World Trade Center was erased. The new version is known as “Pause”. Gharem sounds slightly frustrated when I mention censorship, but only goes so far as to say that he tells “the truth” in his art. He has always acknowledged, though, that transforming attitudes in Saudi Arabia is a huge challenge.
Earlier this year, he foresaw problems with the launch of his new artist-run Amen Art foundation in Riyadh, a bold move in a country slowly getting to grips with contemporary art. Athr Gallery in Jeddah and Alaan Art space in Riyadh are part of a growing commercial sector, for instance, while the artist Ahmed Mater is garnering plaudits for his Desert of Pharan series.
“This country is full of people who have the [necessary] money. But the problem will be getting the government’s permission to launch the foundation. Such art foundations are not part of our culture,” he says. Yet this venture is moving ahead as Gharem is currently working with six artists at a centre in Riyadh.
“I don’t just want to create artists, I want to create real players who are good at everything – working with society, and also successful in the art market,” he says, a surprising assertion as the commercial side of art seems anathema to him. When Christie’s Dubai sold his sculptural installation “Message/Messenger” for $842,500 in 2011, he donated the money to Edge of Arabia for art education in Saudi Arabia. “When I think about money, I get exasperated,” he says.
Hossein Amirsadeghi, the editor of the 2010 publication Art & Patronage: The Middle East, is not totally convinced. “Gharem’s edge is very much tongue-in-cheek,” he says, “not readily discernible as national, social or political criticism ... but exemplifying the regional perspective vis-à-vis Islam, oil and the West.” In other words, his art is a touch too insular.
Visitors to the London show can see for themselves how Gharem breaks the mould. Meanwhile, everything you need to know about the man can perhaps be summed up in his parting utterance. “It’s hard, as Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country but being an artist is a huge privilege,” he says with conviction.
Edge of Arabia, London, October 9-November 8. edgeofarabia.com
Ayyam Gallery: Troubleshooters
The artist Abdulnasser Gharem is represented by Ayyam Gallery, which is co-organising the artist’s London exhibition along with the Berlin-based gallery Side by Side and Edge of Arabia.
Ayyam Gallery has spaces in London, Dubai, Beirut and Jeddah; its founders, Syrian cousins Khaled and Hisham Samawi, launched the business in Damascus in 2006, providing a platform for Arab and Iranian artists.
Was there a potential art market in Syria before civil war engulfed the country in 2011? “While we saw collectors emerging in Syria while the gallery was operational there, most work was still being sold to people outside of the country,” said Khaled Samawi.
The Damascus venue is currently closed – although for a time the gallery was functioning as a studio – and another Ayyam branch, which opened in Cairo in 2010, has also shut down, due to the Arab Spring uprising. But the Dubai venues, in the Al Quoz district and DIFC, along with the Beirut space, are tapping into buoyant local markets.
“In Beirut, the gallery tends to have more of a Lebanese clientele, as the art scene there is quite regional, whereas in Dubai the audience is more international,” added Samawi. He argues that the Young Collectors Auction, launched by the gallery in Dubai in 2009, makes the art-buying process “more transparent” for emerging collectors.
In a significant move, the Samawis plan to launch another Young Collectors Auction at their space in Jeddah on November 12. But is that market mature enough for such an event? The pair opened the Saudi space earlier this year in “response to the recent revival of the Saudi art scene and a concurrent flourishing of international interest in Saudi artists”.
The London gallery remains a prime commercial and critical showcase for Syrian artists working in the country or in exile. In December, the venue will open a show of works by Damascus-born Tammam Azzam, who specialises in digital media. “Earlier this year his work ‘Freedom Graffiti’, which juxtaposed Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ over a war-torn building in Damascus, went viral,” said Samawi.